Monica Lee is the author of four memoirs/autobiographical fiction books: her latest is Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul. Also available: Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of "Like" in 1982, How to Look Hot & Feel Amazing in Your 40s: The 21-Day Age-Defying Diet, Exercise & Everything Makeover Plan and The Percussionist's Wife.
Our little Church Sweet Home is just another in a long line of church conversions. Churches across America (and the world) are losing membership and going on the market, so the opportunities to renovate an old church into a new home abound.
As I admit in my memoir about our church renovation project, Pinterest inspired me:
A quick look through the Pinterest website reveals some spectacular transformations, the sort of metamorphosis that inspired me. But you’ll also find some horrors of awkwardly chopped-up spaces, dark rooms, strange window configurations and thoughtless appropriation of church symbols—like an altar reused as a bar. Ugh.
Search “converted churches” or “church conversions” and you’ll find enough transformative pins to distract you for hours.
Google, of course, will serve up a heaping platter of converted churches, too:
Spent some time on Zoom lately? Who hasn’t? This video communication platform is the hot go-to for socially distanced meetings and work-from-home gatherings.
Even some of my leisure time recently has been spent on Zoom. I’ve attended book club discussions and hosted a family reunion or two on Zoom in the these past pandemic months.
Want to put your best face forward? You can “Touch Up My Appearance” and smooth out your skin tone with the touch of a button.
If you really want to be cool on Zoom, you can look like a pro by getting rid of the piles of books and dirty clothes in your workspace and customizing your background. (Who really wants to neaten up a space when you can utilize technology?)
And better yet? How about upgrading your chaos to a sanctuary? A Church Sweet Home sanctuary?
I’m sharing three images you can use to customize your Zoom background and feel like you’ve upgraded your home zone without all the headache of buying an old church and renovating it.
Zoom Background 1: Kitchen
Zoom Background 2: Entryway
(This one’s my favorite.)
Zoom Background 3: Balcony
Begin by clicking on the image, then right-clicking to find the option to “save image as” and saving it to your desktop (or wherever you store images).
Now log into Zoom and go to Settings, click on “Manage Virtual Background” and choose the image you’ve saved on your desktop. If you’re already in the meeting, click in the upper left corner, then click on the gear symbol, then “Background and Filters.” You might have to click the “Mirror my video” box to get the right orientation on the image. Alternatively, you can change your virtual background during the call by selecting the up arrow (^) next to the stop video button and clicking on the option that says “Choose Virtual Background.”
(Having trouble getting your background to work? Troubleshoot with Google. You’re a smart reader, I know you’ll figure it out.)
If anyone asks about your background, tell them you’re personal friends with the woman who renovated a church. Just another opportunity to name drop your celebrity friends, friend.
Normally, when I think of minimalism, I think of angular lines and chrome, which is probably neither a complete nor fair definition. Cozy would not have been the first adjective I would use.
Yet, when the world turns topsy-turvy as it has in the past year, people begin to think differently about what makes a cozy home. In COVID-19 polluted world, the idea of living in a space that’s free of excess—one that fosters a sense of calm—has become more appealing to homeowners.
One of the hallmarks of minimalist home design is a monochromic color scheme, and even though I’m not a fan of minimalism (at least in home design), I can wholeheartedly endorse a monochromatic color scheme.
It’s one way to reduce visual clutter, Kelle Dame of Kelle Dame Interiors in Kenosha told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently. Lowering the color contrast can result in a clean look as opposed to contrast which creates energy, tension and stimulation.
I’ve chosen paint colors for two homes in the past three years and went with monochromatic colors in both, and I can attest to the calming nature of a clean look.
In every other house I’d owned, I (or my husband) painted every room a different color mostly because that’s what everyone does, especially in cardboard box-type houses when paint color was usually the most distinctive design feature of the room. But in the chome, I had all kinds of other distinctive features vying for attention—etched windows, high ceilings, a dramatic spiral stairway and original wood floors. I decided I didn’t need a bunch of different paint colors muddying up the canvas. I had every room painted in the same colors to create a cohesive backdrop to everything else going on.
For the walls, I chose a light gray inspired by Behr’s Evening White but mixed by Sherwin-Williams. It makes me happy just walking through the rooms any time of day.
The trim, a white inspired by Behr’s Bleached Linen, pops against the gray.
And the wainscoting, a tan inspired by Behr’s Arid Landscape, brings warmth to the scene (and also is reminiscent of the color it was originally painted).
Most of the ceilings in the church are painted in Behr’s Sleek White in eggshell.
More recently, we repainted our condo in Texas.
After painting the entire church in one color scheme, I knew I would do that again in this condo. I decided to switch the dark and light of the original condo paint job by painting the thick, beautiful trim a darker color than the walls. This had the added benefit of saving money on the paint job because we had the ceilings painted the same light color as the walls.
I adore the is-it-gray?-is-it-green? vibe of the trim color, called Sensible Hue from Sherwin-Williams Nurturer collection. It calls attention to the most interesting architectural elements of the room—the doors and windows. And the windows become beautiful frames for the view of the lake.
A darker color on the wainscoting is Illusive Green.
The walls and ceilings were painted in Oyster White.
As a lake home, the condo needed a calm and watery theme (rather than Spanish Revival or whatever was going on before). These paint colors coordinate with the blues and greens of the furniture and accessories we invested in.
How to amp up the coziness value? When monochromatic colors are used, such as whites, creams and other neutral colors, texture will boost coziness, that Kenosha designer Kelle Dame says.
I did that in both homes with jute rugs, baskets, fuzzy throws and textured pillows.
An added benefit of going monochromatic throughout an entire home is that it eliminates constant decision making. Once you decide on a scheme, every room is the same. Easy-peasy. And a homeowner needs to save only a few cans of paint in the basement or utility closet for touch-ups.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t admire the paint job in our home. Someday, I expect I’ll go in a completely different direction, but for right now, monochromatic gives me peace and comfort.
As a church for more than a century, the building that is now my home served its community in many ways.
At its most robust and active in the mid 20th century, the congregation undoubtedly supported numerous charities with service and alms. It was in the 1940s when the church renovated the entryway and interior to reorient the altar, and I’m guessing if the membership had enough resources to do so, they had enough to share, too. The church was renown for its Carolina barbecue dinners and its women’s group festivals that raised funds through the sales of baked goods and handmade items. And near the end of its life as a worship space, a food pantry was founded there and operated in the basement; we found the raised gardens in the back yard where fresh produce was grown to give away.
I consider churches to be awesome in the role of NGOs—that is, non-governmental organizations working toward benefiting society and human welfare. (Raising funds to renovate a religious building’s entryway is not the work of an NGO, but feeding the hungry or collecting clothing for the poor is.) When you pay the government (i.e., taxes) to perform such work, sometimes you see tangible results and sometimes you don’t, but when you contribute to a local charity through a church or operated by it, you often experience the results first-hand. It’s satisfying and meaningful in a way paying income taxes is not.
Which brings me to Family24, Inc. The church I belong to (not the one I live in) is raising funds for Family24 this month, and if you live in the village, you have the opportunity to fill your own belly while helping others. The local First Congregational United Church of Christ is offering a Souper Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, February 6, 2021. You can drive-through and pick up a meal of two hot and packaged-to-go soups (chili and potato soup) plus a roll and cookie. Cost? It’s up to you: the church is collecting a freewill offering to support Family24’s mission trip.
Family24 is a mission-minded organization partnering with Hogar de Vida in San Andres Sajcabaja, Guatemala to provide nutrition and care for the children living there. Family24 also supports families in our local community.
Family24’s tagline is Faith, Family, Farming & Food in Wisconsin and around the world. I love that the group is doing a mission trip to Guatemala because my father has been there twice with Rotary International to construct buildings in isolated communities. You can follow Family24‘s work on Facebook.
Everything about this is good! Hot soup on a cold day. Freewill offering—give what you feel called to give. Help a local charity while also helping internationally. If you live nearby, consider buying your lunch to help others.
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In other news, Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul was named a 2020 Finalist this week in the Indies Today 2020 Awards.
Based in part on this blog, Church Sweet Home is the true story of how my husband I transformed a 126-year-old Methodist church into our dream home. It came out in May.
Full disclosure: I am not an NGO and most of the proceeds from the sale of my book go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble. But I am an independent author, and Indies Today is a resource for other authors like me. Readers can find some gems there among the reviews of self-published books. The contest’s overall winner, One Hit Away: A Memoir of Recovery by Jordan P. Barnes was named 2020 Best Book of the Year. That debut memoir is described as a “gripping, startling account of heroin addiction, compassion and ultimately, of salvation.”
Indies Today also named Genre Award Winners in 18 categories and more than 80 other Finalists. Show an independent author some love and check them out.
Nothing says summer like green grass. In the middle of winter when the white stuff covers the northern landscape, a little bit of greenery, even if it’s only a memory, is good for the soul.
The grass in most yards is like a military crewcut—neat and rather rigid in profile when it’s properly cared for. At Church Sweet Home, caring for the grass falls to my husband who enjoys driving a zero-turn riding lawnmower around to whack the shoots of grass into submission.
But my favorite grasses in our yard (and anywhere for that matter) are the ornamental grasses which come in a variety of greens and other hues, including purple and dark brown, and many have tufts, blooms and seedheads. Ornamental grasses are kind of like ’80s hair: big, wild and eye-catching. Marvel in their ostentatious beauty.
We began decorating the yard with fancy grass donated by a benefactor (and fan of this blog) who had an abundance in her own yard. Ornamental grasses are like hostas in that way: easy to divide and share.
Tyler planted this gift in a clump just off our patio. In late summer, beautiful pink seedheads decorate the tops. When the sun catches them, it’s like jewelry.
Last summer, Uncle Al gifted us with some more ornamental grass, this type with variegated leaves. Some of it, we planted outside the patio, to enhance a corner of the church.
More of these variegated variety, Uncle Al planted for us on another corner of the property. Here it camouflages some long forgotten and no longer useful utility pole. Tyler says it belongs to AT&T, probably not the current amalgamation but something closer to American Telephone & Telegraph (ha, ha, the telegraph, how quaint).
Here’s a close-up of the variegation-—yellow and green stripes.
Ornamental grasses can add big statement to your landscaping. According to the Extension Service, ornamental grasses can be planted in the fall or spring, so maybe now’s the time to dream up where you might plant some in your yard so you, too, can marvel in their beauty.
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Today’s headline is a quote from Frederic Chopin, a Polish-born pianist and composer.
We’ve got a throw-back church sign today, drawn from one of last summer’s thoughtful messages. This one makes me smile because some people can’t their heads around the use of “her” as a pronoun for God. On the other hand, some people can’t get their heads around the use of “him” as a pronoun for God.
Maybe your God is male. I have no problem with that. But my God doesn’t have genitalia, so I guess that means I land in the “they” camp (despite the grammatical agreement issues that causes). He is male, She is female, they are both, they are neither. If I refer to God as “She” once in a while, well, that’s just a reminder that I don’t really know. I’m not omniscient. Which is sort of the point of this message: faith is trusting even when you don’t know what the heck is going on.
I also don’t really know much about the meaning of geraniums, which my husband thoughtfully planted in the church sign stand, except they are a pretty-in-pink reminder of the promise of things to come on a gray winter day. A quick Google search reveals geraniums mean pretty much anything. Friendship? Sure. Ingenuity? Yes. Stupidity or folly. Yup, that, too.
I trust that you will apply whatever meaning you need today.
Among the benefits of investing in an existing structure, as opposed to building a new one, is that you usually inherit mature trees on the property.
This was most definitely the case with our converted church in the center of town, a little village on the Wisconsin-Illinois border. We had a number of big, beautiful trees on the lot. We ended up removing a few of the elderly Chinese elms, but the rest of them just needed a little pruning and love.
The stars in our yard are the pine trees. Somebody in the congregation long ago planted a number of pine trees that grew to forty or fifty feet tall in the decades since that prescient decision. They tower over the church roof.
Immediately upon taking possession of the property three years ago, we had the lowest branches on the two pine trees closest to the building trimmed dramatically (it took me and our hired man hours to haul all those branches to the burn pile). Some of the branches were draped across the roof, and they had to go. But since that extreme haircut, the scars have healed. I can barely get my arms around half the trunk of the biggest pine tree, it’s so massive (and I have long arms!). I stare into those towering branches next to our patio when I am in savasana, the final resting pose at the end of almost every yoga practice–at least, when I’m lucky enough to do yoga outdoors (which is out of the question, even in Texas, this time of year). It’s supremely calming to listen to the wind in those branches, and contemplate how those branches were reaching skyward long before I was born. Depending on my luck and the tree’s, those branches might be writing poems on the sky long after I’m gone, too.
If the true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit, a quote alternately attributed to author Nelson Henderson or Elton Trueblood, my husband decided to repay those long-ago congregants by planting a new pine tree in our yard last fall.
After we cut down those Chinese elms on the property line, Tyler determined we needed a little more greenery between us and the neighbors. So this little spruce tree took up residence between two of the bigger pines just off the driveway. If we had been around for Christmas, I would have been tempted to hang lights on this tree, it was so perfectly Christmasy.
In my youth, I didn’t consider myself a nature lover, but the longer I enjoy the eternal newness that comes from sunrises, sunsets, plants and yes, trees, the more I appreciate it.
“Of all man’s works of art, a cathedral is greatest. A vast and majestic tree is greater than that.”
She lived on this earth almost as long at the old Methodist church we turned into our home.
Grandma was born in 1915, about 24 years after the construction of the building that would one day become Church Sweet Home.
She passed away in 2019 at age 104.
I was given the diaries she kept from 1985 to 2009, her retirement years, and I spent several weeks last year sifting through the entries to write a biography (it was not unlike sifting through the detritus left in the church to create our home). And today is launch day!
Fruitful Labor: How to Live to 104 Gracefully, Gratefully describes my grandmother’s life, her faith and her labor, usually related to gardening and making pies (more about her pies here). The title, Fruitful Labor, comes from a verse in the first chapter of Philippians in reference to life here on earth. Here’s the book synopsis:
Laura Wallgren (1915-2019) was a farmer’s wife, a devoted Christian and a talented quilter. Living a simple life among the rolling hills of New York Mills, Minnesota, Grandma Laura was plain speaking, spunky and a little bit vain. She also was one of those rare Americans who lived to 104. Can you imagine? Even she couldn’t imagine. The centenarian said more than once she didn’t know why she had lived so long. But the answer may be found among her twenty-five years of diary entries documenting family, good food, the weather and gratitude for all of it.
Revealing a retirement story that unfolds in a small town in the mid-1980s to 2009, Wallgren’s journals feel like an anthropological study of a Central Minnesota widow. The diaries are a quilt of sorts, detailing the dash between the years of birth and death. From the threads, Wallgren’s granddaughter Monica Lee coaxes stories of her grandmother’s appreciation for fresh fruits and vegetables, an accident in which Wallgren breaks her neck at age 84, and a touching account of a daughter-in-law’s battle with cancer. Each day is its own unique block, yet knitted together, patterns emerge, colors coordinate and a beautiful tapestry of family love and personal perseverance emerges.
A charming tale of family ties, over-the-top gardening and persisting despite the brutal Minnesota winters and the volume of grief only a 104-year-old experiences, this heartfelt portrait of a Midwestern centenarian who carries on with grit and humor is like a Wallgren family recipe for fresh strawberry pie (recipe not included).
Fruitful Labor has been available since December, but I waited to officially launch it until I could send copies to my cousins, Grandma’s grandchildren, to whom the book is dedicated. I put this book together with them in mind. Paging through Grandma’s diaries these past few months made me feel so close to her, and I wanted them to feel the same. We all are clear evidence of Grandma’s presence on earth, and now this book is another way she lives on.
Whether or not you like pie or knew my grandmother, you might enjoy this little book (and pick up a few tips for longevity, the first being if you’re gonna eat pie, you should make it from scratch). You can get Fruitful Labor everywhere there’s wifi. Fruitful Labor is available on Amazon as both a paperback and Kindle version, and it’s priced to share:
“Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”
~ Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher
Sometimes, it’s necessary to toss the chaff away to make room for the wheat.
As the new year dawns, I can’t patrol any social media site without seeing evidence of resolutions to organize closets, give away housewares, sort through junk drawers and toss expired condiments, medications and eyeshadows. People are making room for better things by getting rid of clutter.
So it was with one of our trees last fall.
The hard maple tree in the front yard of our chome wasn’t there when the church was constructed back in the late 19th century, but it’s evident in pictures from the mid-20th century. An inoperable light fixture remains attached to the trunk; we’ve been told one of the pastors lived in a trailer outside the church, and the fixture provided exterior light.
It’s a beautiful tree but an aging one. We were forced to cut down three mostly dead Chinese elms on the property line in the spring of 2019 after one of them split in half in an ice storm. This hard maple was mostly alive, but one of its main branches hung over the road, threatening to kill someone in the right (or wrong) windy conditions. So Tyler determined the tree need a major trim. His cousin, an experienced tree trimmer, agreed to perform the work in September just as the leaves were beginning to turn.
It made me sad to see this tree’s huge limbs turned into kindling. I knew it was for the best, but I was appalled. I imagine some people feel the same way about dropping their belongings off at the Salvation Army store or Goodwill. I know a lot of people who watched as we renovated the church in 2018 felt sad about the passing of an age, but it was necessary to save the church structure and create the home in which we now live.
The tree looked scrawny after the pruning, but we hope we have given it many more years of life.
Chatting with a friend the other day about 2020, she said, “It was a complete waste for me. I accomplished nothing.”
I pressed her on this pessimism, and she managed to find a few flecks of gold in the mining pan, but for many of us, 2020 was an outlier, and we’re all glad it’s in the rearview mirror. As an introvert who already worked at home and didn’t get sick, I found the year of the corona virus to be simply weird, not terrible. But I personally know two people who died of COVID-19, and I’m just as tired as anyone of wearing a mask and socially distancing. Goodbye, 2020, you won’t be missed.
I updated my beautiful church sign when the ground was still green, not white, but who couldn’t use flowers in the wintertime, right? And the message applies to a new year. If we’re still lamenting the awfulness of 2020, maybe the arbitrary turn of the calendar page might help put it behind us. And if we’re worrying about what 2021 might bring—political chaos, vaccine delays, inconveniences, sickness, death—well, that’s wasted time already.
Better to live each day as it comes. Did you enjoy sleeping in, tucked in warm pillows and blankets? Is the sun shining? Do you have the extra time to remove the seeds from a fresh and juicy pomegranate? Can you appreciate the function of your legs, however fat and hairy they may be? (“I cried because I had no shoes,” said Helen Keller, “until I met the man who had no feet.”) If all the restaurants are closed, make a pot of soup. If you can’t have a party, write a letter. If you can’t go on vacation, read a book. Fill your lungs with crisp fresh air. Home is a sanctuary; savor it.
Living mindfully in the present. These are the acts that give me peace. And that’s what I’m wishing for you, too, in the new year.
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The quote that forms today’s headline is attributed to Mother Teresa, a nun and missionary who devoted her life to caring for the sick and poor.